Holiday$$

Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself when I get on my soapbox about saving (period, not just for retirement); especially when holidays are approaching. I think it’s fantastic people are seemingly so generous; but because I’m jaded I ask myself if people are feeling this generosity out of a sense of responsibility, or because they really want to give. The core of this cynicism – why wait until an arbitrary date on a calendar? Why not give when the mood strikes you? Could it be the mood only strikes you when the calendar (and mass marketing) says it’s important?

For those who the holidays have more significance, what if you were to buy gifts right after major holidays when stores are trying to clear their shelves; or at least spread the spending throughout the year avoiding the holiday hangover come January? I think we’ve been conditioned to look forward to Black Friday and Cyber Monday; but I would argue deals could be found all year round – especially for items not in season, or going out of season.

Is it a sense of competition driving us to spend so much money? Perhaps we’re worried about what other people will think if they give us something of more value? I can almost hear the rebuttals (having had them in person on more occasions than I can count); about how it’s a season for giving, and people are doing it because it makes them feel good. Perhaps – I won’t pretend to know how others feel. But how would you friends and loved ones feel if instead of buying more “stuff”; you made a contribution in their name to a non-profit they support?

Or better yet, took steps to secure your own financial future by increasing contributions to your retirement account by 2%? I’ve also had it drilled into me this season isn’t about the money; but toys are temporary and most of us are going to get to a point where we are either unwilling, or unable, to work any longer. And when we get there who is going to remember who bought the biggest gift 20 years ago? Especially if those family members are now foregoing their own financial welfare to support you?

Perhaps you think I’m painting too dire of a picture? According to an Economic Policy Institute 2016 report, nearly HALF of American families have NO retirement savings at all! Conversely, an American Research Group 2017 study says the average American family will spend approximately $1,000 this year.

Let’s put this in perspective. The average US median income, according to a 2016 US Census Bureau American Community Survey; is $57,617. It may be higher or lower where you live, but this is the country’s median (average taking into account high and low outliers). Families are spending almost 2% of their income for (1) day; yet cannot save at least as much for the 20 – 30 years when they will not be working.

This doesn’t make any sense to me, especially given how many are probably putting some or all of their purchases on a credit card – contributing to an existing balance they are making payments towards.

I’m not saying don’t give gifts; but I’m imploring everyone to help themselves first. Using the same numbers from above – 2% of the median income ($56,617) – the average household would have approximately $90 per month withheld from their check. No, this isn’t going to be enough to retire one; but it’s a start. The harsh reality is we need to do things that are not fun or sexy to be successful. Sometimes it means we have to be selfish; but it also means you’re not alone in being selfish.

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Know Yourself, And Be Honest

I want to preface this by saying I continue to believe we can achieve what we put our minds to; however, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge what we have an aptitude for. I don’t believe, although I wish I could, people will get whatever they want just because they believe they should. I also don’t believe all it takes is hard work – I have first-hand experience this isn’t enough.

It’s important to know what you want, and to write your Goals down. It’s also important to map out how you will achieve those Goals; but the unfortunate truth (as I see it) is no matter how much you believe, and how hard you work towards them, you may still not achieve the Goal; especially if you’re not being honest with yourself.

When you set Goals, I think it’s important to acknowledge and understand what the associated opportunity costs are. Every decision comes with a price, an alternative you’re not electing. Some of those costs are too high, we’re not willing to pay them – and this is okay; but it means we’re setting that particular result aside.

This is where I feel we’re not being honest enough with ourselves. We blame anything and everything else – it’s too expensive, it’s too hard, etc. It’s not, we’re just not willing to pay the price of entry. Others are, and they achieve what we do not – not because they’re better than us or luckier; but because they are willing to accept the cost. Sure, some of them have more innate abilities and/or resources; but these do not decide who is successful and who is not.

Before charting a course, do the best you can to understand what’s on the path ahead. No, you’re not going to be able to identify all the obstacles and challenges; but you can take a hard look at yourself and decide how committed you are to the objective and when enough is enough. There is more to success than blindly chasing a Goal at the cost of everything else.

There has to be an understanding you may not be 100% successful – at least to me. I don’t let this hold me back. The best example I can give is my fight for my son’s independence. I’ve had “experts” tell me his whole life not to expect too much; that it’s likely he’s going to plateau at some point. I acknowledge their opinions, they have a lot more experience in this world than I do. However, I also know there are exceptions to every rule; and I am doing everything I can to help my son be an exception.

This has led to choices I’ve made taking me on a very different course I envisioned for myself when my wife was alive. It’s also led to me admitting (painfully) I need help from others because there is a lot of “simple” things I’m not good at (like teaching him to cook). We’ve reached some “dead-ends”, and right now he’s not ready to live completely independently. I’m still unwilling to say he never will, but I will admit I’m not sure when or how I will get him there.

But I own it – and I didn’t always. It’s so much easier to ignore the painful truths. Those truths don’t have to define you. What are your truths? What have you been ignoring? How can you accept these truths, without letting them hold you back?

Celebrate The Wins

All too often I think we, as a population, tend to focus on what’s not working and the negatives in our lives. And who can blame us, seemingly being bombarded non-stop from news outlets, Twitter & other social media and all the other external stimuli we’re exposed to.

This can make it difficult to remember life isn’t all bad; in fact, in my opinion the good far outweighs everything else – if we just take the time to look for it. Contrary to what some may believe, positive occurrences don’t need to come in momentous packages. Children often show us this through the wonder they exhibit as they explore their world – what happens to this as we age? Where does it go?

There is no doubt life can be uncomfortable and, at times, downright miserable. But why should we allow that to become our reality? Even when things are going horribly wrong, I believe you can find something good to focus on to help start lifting you up – even if it’s only someone allowing you to pull in front of them on the freeway or having your child (or spouse) do something you ask them w/o an argument.

Focusing on these little “victories” will train your brain to look for others; shifting your focus from noticing just the bad to really understanding how much good you are exposed to on a daily basis. To me, this is doubly important as a parent of a child with Special Needs. I have found it scarily easy to lose sight of life’s simple pleasures – falling into a pit of darkness where nothing seems to go right at times.

This isn’t healthy, and it’s certainly not enjoyable. Yes, there are times when my son loses ground – times when he’s unable to utilize skills I thought he’d mastered. And yes, crap like flat tires on days when I need to be somewhere or the universe seeming to pick dump on Eric days happen to me. But dwelling on this only serves to make me feel like crap for longer, and causes me to look at everything through the wrong lens – focusing on the negatives of every situation.

I’m no Pollyanna, I understand the world is not all rainbows and unicorns. I’ve had my dreams shattered and felt like the universe laughed in my face. I’m choosing not to make this my focal point. I have found life to be much more enjoyable if/when I celebrate my successes, no matter how small they may seem.

Like any habit, it may be difficult at first – especially if it’s not something you’ve been doing. You may need to actively look for things to celebrate, but I promise if you stick with this it becomes much easier. In a few months you won’t even have to think about it – it will have become the norm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. I had to tune out much of the external stimuli to give myself enough bandwidth to start doing this. I still tend to walk away from those who focus only on the negative, I don’t begrudge them their beliefs but I don’t want it in my life.

The year’s almost over – wouldn’t it be fantastic to live 2018 and beyond looking at the world through a lens where you can readily acknowledge and celebrate ALL your wins? Give it a try, and remember you get out what you put in – so if you are halfhearted in your attempt don’t expect amazing results.

What’s Holding You Back?

I’ve lost track of the resource fairs and other events I’ve attended, sponsored or both over the years; yet without fail I have witnessed the same reactions as people walk by booths manned by Financial Advisors (not just me). There is a quick look, then look away while muttering “I’m good” or “I have a plan”.

Yet studies have shown the majority of Americans are not prepared financially, with the majority unable to cover a $400 sudden bill because they don’t have an emergency fund. This bothers me, a lot; because I was in those same shoes the year my wife died. I don’t know if I would’ve reacted any differently than those I see at the Resource Fairs, because I didn’t know about them until after everything occurred and I was faced with becoming a civilian, and a single dad of a child with a disability.

There has to be something keeping people from making the connection – and I don’t know if it’s fear of being sold to; shame or fear of being shamed; belief they need money to talk to an advisor (in some cases this is true); etc. What I do know is without help it’s unreasonable to think anyone can change their current circumstances, especially if they feel like they’re swimming in oatmeal with a 50 lb weight strapped to their waist (how I felt on/off for the first year after my wife passed – and truthfully still feel at times).

Planning (financial or otherwise) is not the same for families with significant disabilities. It’s not because your situation is worse than anyone else’s; it’s because you have different challenges than most and unless someone is familiar with those challenges the advice you receive (although well-intentioned) can set you back.

Maybe that’s what’s holding people back – they’ve been burned and don’t want to get screwed over again. Unfortunately I don’t have a guaranteed solution for how to avoid this – my best advice is find people who have overcome similar challenges and ask them how they did it (understanding it may not work for you).

However I can say this with absolute assurance – if you continue on the path you are on, and you are not seeing the results you want, nothing is going to change on its own. At some point you will need to make an adjustment, and the sooner the better; because the correction is less painful the shorter in duration or scope you can get it. So I challenge all of you, rather than simply saying “I’m fine” take a deep, hard look at where you are and ask yourself if you’re comfortable because everything is as it should be; or you’re comfortable because this has been the status quo and it’s so much easier to just go along with the flow.

Glass Balls/Rubber Balls

Our lives can be chaotic, especially as parents of children with differing needs. As we go through our day it’s easy to become overwhelmed or feel like you’re being pulled into a million different directions. So some of us avoid doing things, not wanting to add anything else.

I’ve adopted a philosophy of glass ball & rubber balls. Glass balls are fragile, if you drop them they can break. These are items I can’t lose sight of; things like my son’s doctor appointment(s), work deadlines, etc.

Rubber balls are less critical, if I lose track of something it may not be comfortable but it’s not going to be a critical failure. If I forget something on the grocery list or I have work items with further due dates and have to make a decision about what to complete because something else comes up during the day.

What are your glass and rubber balls? Once you’ve identified them, focus on the glass ones. Make sure you do whatever needs to be done so you don’t drop them. Accept the fact you may drop something from time to time, we’re only human. Do your best to just drop the rubber balls.

Like anything else this takes time. Start with listing your glass balls, everything else will be a rubber ball by default. The first few times you perform this exercise you may find you have a LOT of glass balls; it doesn’t hurt to revisit the list – weeding out items until you have a small core list of things you absolutely cannot let drop. Not sure what should be important at work, ask your supervisor/manager. They’ll let you know what they want, although be ready because their priorities may be changed by those above them.

 

The Parents’ Place of Maryland

I’ve been researching resources since 2012, and I didn’t really know what the Parents’ Place of Maryland was until I met their new Executive Director, Rene Averitt-Sanzone, in 2017. I’d heard of them, but I didn’t think they were a resource I could use because I didn’t think they had a presence in Montgomery County (even though it has the State in its name).

Since meeting Rene I’ve taken time to research and learn more about The Parents’ Place, and I’m excited to share – I would like this to reach every family in Maryland who is looking for resources.

Who They Are 

The Parents’ Place of Maryland, like so many other organizations focused on helping those with disabilities and their families, was founded in 1990 as a grass-roots organization by families, professionals and community leaders. Their Mission (from the website) is “to empower families as advocates and partners in improving education and health outcomes for their children with disabilities and special health care needs”; and from everything I’ve seen they walk the talk.

What They Do 

The Parents’ Place of Maryland offers help in (3) distinct ways: one-on-on support, information & resources, and training programs. If you’re not sure they can help, reach out – if they aren’t the right resource, they can probably direct you to whoever is. Their information & resources page links to a library covering a host of topics, from bullying to transition (and SO much more!); a Services Directory and a Podcast offering “RealTalk for Parents”. The training programs are available to parents/families and professionals, but I wasn’t able to find a calendar highlighting what’s available so you’re best option (as far as I can tell) is to call and see what’s coming.

What Else Should I Know

Since they were founded, they have helped over 10,000 families and professionals – providing information, training and support. They’ve held over 70 workshops, and offered 10 conferences; and have sent over 300,000 informational and educational materials – with a staff of less than 15 and over half of their employees are “Parent Educators”.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of The Parents’ Place of Maryland, and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). All opinions and views are my own.

One Step Forward, Two Back

This week was rough – I’ve grown so used to my son preparing his own meals I seem to have forgotten he has challenges, brought on by his disabilities. What brought it home, in frightening clarity, was his failure at cooking a meal he’s been cooking for over a year – and more troubling – my reaction to it. I lost my temper, as if he was deliberately trying to screw up. I thought I had put this behind me, having been a demon I let guide me while Active Duty and only confronting after my wife’s illness and subsequent death.

I think most people can relate to this feeling, not necessarily because they have a child or family member with disabilities; but because I believe we all have things we are trying to improve or grow, and when we get angry at ourselves for “allowing” ourselves to slip. I don’t think we should just shrug and say “oh well”, but there has got to be a more constructive emotion than anger. Understand where the anger comes from, what is the root cause; and harness the energy to improve yourself.

For me, the root cause is my need for independence – not having anyone else dependent upon me, for anything. As much as I would like to believe otherwise, and will work towards; given how things are now my son will never live completely independently. I’m not willing to shift his care to an organization, although I will hire staff to assist after he leaves High School.

The difference, to me, is controlling who works with him. He’s incredibly capable, I’m both blown away and proud of how much he CAN do – and I feel like there is more just waiting to be expressed. My opinion (and it’s just that, I have no proof or facts) of organizations are they will do the best they can, but at the end of the day they are serving the masses and one individual could be lost. I don’t want that individual to be my son.

All of these thoughts and feelings create the stress that expresses itself in a loss of temper when my son seemingly loses ground. Seemingly, because I think it’s an unfair characterization. There are things I have done in the past I more than likely cannot do error-free anymore; yet I don’t want people losing their temper with me. All of us, in my opinion, have times when we lose ground. Maybe we’re trying to get healthy, out of debt or just want to be a better person; and we slip. Maybe we have a cigarette, splurge on something we don’t “need” or lose temper with our son.

The trick is not giving up. Accept we’re human, and mistakes will happen. Identify what caused the mistake – was it a decision/reaction or was it something really out of our control. In my experience there are few things truly out of our control, because we react – and we can condition ourselves and our reactions; through careful monitoring and honest self-assessment. I’m not suggesting we beat ourselves up (figuratively or literally); but I am a firm believer in truth – having made more than my share of mistakes when I was younger. It takes practice, and practice takes time. Celebrate your wins, focus on how you earned them – so when there is a slip/backslide you will know which behavior(s) can get you back on track.